Transfer at 14; good idea, badly executed?

Schools Week has been running a story about the failure of many UTCs and Studio Schools to attract pupils for September. Their latest news is that Plymouth UTC will now not take any pupils at 14 this coming September Here in Oxfordshire the news on that front is better, with two of the three UTC/Studio schools fully subscribed. Indeed, the Didcot UTC has made 120 offer for 120 places equal to its Planned Admission Number and the Studio School in Bicester exceeded its PAN of 50 with 53 offers to the 60 applicants. Now, whether or not they all turn up is another matter, and we won’t know until parents have considered issues such as how much it will cost to transport their child to the school.

The Space Studio School in Banbury follows the trend identified by Schools Week, with 16 offer for the 75 places available. But, located as it is in the grounds of the town’s largest academy it has always seemed to me to be a bit of an oddity.

Despite these good recruitment numbers, there remain for the schools in Oxfordshire the same issues rehearsed before in this column. Existing Oxfordshire secondary schools will lose the funding of 173 pupils if all those offered places move to the Didcot and Bicester schools. That’s the best part of £700,000 in one year. Over four years it would amount to not far short of £3 million pounds after allowing for inflation. Put this drain on income on top of the 8% the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggested might be the cuts to school budgets over the rest of this decade and you have the potential for financial problems at other schools.

To make the most of a system, you need a degree of planning or unlimited funds. We don’t have either at present and we don’t seem to have a government that understands that in times of austerity you need to make the most of the resources that you do have available.

The issue in Oxfordshire is, what will be the consequences for schools losing pupils at 14 and 16, whereas elsewhere the consequence is the opposite. What happens to the schools that don’t attract enough pupils to pay their bills? The silence from the Regional Schools Commissioners and the National Commissioner on the need for a rational approach is of concern. These civil servants must not be high priced rubber stamps approving new academies without understanding the consequences.

In the end, it will be the much maligned local authorities that will have to sort out ant mess. It may be no surprise that the Plymouth UTC operates in a selective school system. In such a system, few pupils will leave a selective school at 14 making it even harder to recruit from the remaining schools with the pupils that didn’t take or pass the selection process.

It is probably time to look at how the transfer of pupils at 14 is going to work in the longer-term: leaving it to the market isn’t really an option.

Children on Free School Meals don’t go to selective schools

The following piece appeared in today’s Oxford Mail comment column.

What is the nature of the contract between the State and those parents who entrust their children’s education to the government? As we approach the 150th anniversary of the State’s offer of free education, a right that was originally introduced by the Liberal government after 1870, this question is as real today as it was then.

Indeed, with the local Tory enthusiasm for the re-introduction of grammar schools, as outlined by Oxfordshire’s Cabinet member with responsibility for education in this paper last week, the issue is of real concern to many parents locally. I did wonder whether the enthusiasm with which the local Tories have embraced grammar schools is just a diversionary tactic to draw attention away from other cuts in the education funding and early years’ budgets, including the removal of much of the Children’s Centre work from rural areas and my own division in north Oxford rather than a genuine desire to turn back the clock.

Grammar schools became a core part of Tory Party policy after the passing of the 1944 Education Act, although it was the Labour government of the late 1940s that laid down the basis for the transformation into the system of grammar and secondary modern schools. With many school leavers at that time still destined for field, factory or, for many girls, family life, grammar schools satisfied the needs of a largely muscle-powered economy for a small number of more educated individuals.

Now, fast forward seventy years and we have an entirely different economy; young people are staying in education longer and our economy requires a much better educated workforce. The market porter of yesterday, pushing a barrow, has been replaced by the fork-lift truck driver and even they are increasingly being replaced by computer operatives running automated warehouses staffed by robots such as those seen in the recent BBC TV series on how modern factories operate. Less muscle, more brain power is the key to the modern economy.

In Oxfordshire, the demand for educated individuals to staff the wealth-creating and knowledge generating industries cannot be satisfied by selecting a fraction of the school population at age eleven. There is a case for recognising that between 14-16 pupils can make judgements about their future intentions, but even then closing doors too firmly, as grammar schools so often do, isn’t a good idea.

There are far more important ways to spend limited funds on education than introducing grammar schools: better careers advice, ensuring enough teachers for all children to be taught by a properly qualified teacher and creating a curriculum designed for the twenty-first century are just three of the more important uses for education funding.

However, the most important reason many supporters of grammar schools put forward for their re-introduction is the desire to improve social mobility. Too often there is no evidence to support their argument other than anecdotal recollections of individuals who prospered in the so-called golden age of grammar schools. To test the current picture I looked at the percentage of pupils with free school meals in the 163 grammar schools across England in January as a possible proxy measure for social mobility.

Nationally, 14.1% of secondary pupils were eligible for free school meals. No grammar school reached that figure; indeed only six grammar schools had more than 6% of their pupils eligible for free school meals; 66 grammar schools had less than 2% of pupils on Free School Meals.

It is time for us to work together to create an education system that works for the benefit of all, not the advantage of the few: that means a fully comprehensive system with opportunities for all from primary school to post-16 provision.


Robert the Bruce Day

I call today Robert the Bruce Day after the Scottish King who endured a number of failures and, so the tale goes, was inspired to carry on campaigning when all seemed lost by watching a spider fail to complete is web. Despite several failures, the story goes, the spider didn’t give up and continued trying until it eventually succeeded.

There will be some pupils that receive their GCSE results today that won’t have made the required grades in either or both of English and mathematics. Now we can argue long and hard about the suitability of the curriculum for all sixteen year olds studying these subjects, but we are where we are. The government has decreed that every person in learning or education should continue to study these subjects until they are at the required standard.

I can sympathise. Back in the golden age of grammar schools I failed what was then ‘O’ level English at age 16. Indeed, I failed it at age 17 and age 18 as well. In total, I failed the subject some five times before finally achieving a pass in not one but two different Examination Boards at the same time; the January of my third year in the Sixth Form.

Fortunately, I was inspired by the Robert the Bruce story when in primary school. It may have had something to do with Bruce Castle Park in Tottenham, just down the road from where I went to primary school. Just as likely, was the way, W W Ashton, the head teacher, told the story. Any way the notion of not giving up stuck. This helped me through the slog of repeating the same examination following yet more tuition throughout the first two years of the Sixth Form. Curiously, in the term before the final examinations I passed, I didn’t have any more tuition, but time to think and assimilate what was needed.

I guess my basic failings in spelling and grammar that regular readers of this blog may have noticed from time to time may not have helped my cause. They certainly meant I never expected either to have written a column in a national education publication for over a decade or to have been a regular writer of a blog. In that respect, technology has been a great help: this would not have been possible with the development of the microchip.

So, my message is one of hope. Don’t give up. If at first you fail, try, try again. Who knows what you might achieve in the end.


Schools and their pupils in 2016

Now that purdah is over the DfE can once again start its full range of duties. Earlier today the DfE published the results of the latest school and pupil numbers based upon the January 2016 census.

Overall, there were 121,000 more pupils in the system than in January 2015; no surprise to anyone there. However, even in the secondary sector there were 8,700 more pupils, reversing the long decline and marking the start of an increase likely to stretch well into the next decade.

There are some interesting statistics buried in the Statistical Bulletin, some of which may point to why the nation voted as it did last Thursday. The proportion of pupils with minority ethnic origins increased in the primary sector from little over 20% in 2006 to more than 31% in 2016; an increase of around a half in just a decade. For the third year in a row, the largest ethnic minority group were White Non-British at 7.1% of primary and 5.4% of the secondary school population and 6.3% of the total school population.

There are a lot more interesting nuggets buried in the tables. For instance, four shire counties each had more independent schools in them than in the whole of the North East region. The four: Surrey, Kent, Hampshire and Oxfordshire together accounted for 309 independent schools. Taken together two regions, London with 551 and the South East with 529, accounted for almost half of the independent schools in England.

Similarly, the three regions of London, The South East and East of England together account for 98 out of the 211 free schools, UTCs and Studio Schools in existence this January. Despite their potential for vocational education there were only six schools classified as free schools, UTCs or studio schools in the whole of the North East region: a truly divided country on these measures.

There is also a sharp divide in terms of free school meals, with regions in the north of England having above average percentages of pupils eligible and claiming and most of London, the Home Counties, East Midlands and South West having below average percentages. Inner London boroughs don’t share in this pattern, with some having amongst the highest levels of free school meals claimed in the country as a percentage of the school population. Tower Hamlets even exceeds the level seen in North East authorities such as Middlesbrough on one of the measures.

There was a slight fall in the number of infant classes with more than 30 pupils in January 2016 compared with last year, but the DfE admit the percentage of such classes still remains above the 2013 level, no doubt reflecting the pressure on school budgets.

Redbridge and Harrow had the largest average key Stage 1 class sizes at 29.5 each, closely followed by Slough, Richmond upon Thames, Birmingham and Sandwell. Rural areas in the north of England had some of the smallest average class sizes at Key Stage 1. As many of these have some of the smallest average class sizes at key Stage 2 as well it may pose interesting questions for the National Funding Formula, should the consultation still go ahead.





Free Schools but not Free Education

The report from The Children’s Commission on Poverty saying that the cost of basics, such as uniforms, school trips, materials and computer access can amount to £800 per child each year in state schools raises fundamental questions about what should be paid for by the State in terms of schooling.

I have long been aware of schools identifying specific textbooks and expecting pupils to have access to them and also in some cases in the past even expecting parents to donate to a fund for the school. Over the years these practices seem to have been growing as local democratic control has been eroded by successive central governments of all political persuasions. The Pupil Premium and free school meals for infants are at least a step in recognising there is a balance that needs restoring and these pupils with extra funding should not be asked to pay for items that are part of the basic life of the school.

Of course, different schools have always had access to different fund-raising abilities. When I worked in Haringey, at the start of my career, schools at the Highgate end of the borough made many more times profit at their summer fete than did schools at the Tottenham end of the borough.  Indeed, one school always seemed to be able to pull in a TV personality that guaranteed good attendance regardless of the weather.

I do think schools should be compelled to publish on their web site what they charge for each year. Where schools have reserves above the generally accepted norms then they must explain to parents why they are not providing the items they charge for from school funds. Perhaps someone might like to complain to the Secretary of State that a school is acting unreasonably by not spending its own money on a basic item.

Taking a cut of uniform sales through suppliers puts up the cost to parents as does having uniforms that cannot be easily bought from high street retailers, perhaps because the blazer is an unusual colour or has piping around the edges. Whether or not these are devices designed to exclude certain children from a particular schools, especially once the cost of sports kit has been added to the basic uniform cost, they do create a burden on less well off parents that should be prevented in state-funded schools.

The issue of internet connections at home has been one that has raised concerns ever since IT became so important in homework. Schools need to monitor whether this is a problem and follow best practice in ensuring all pupils can use the internet to complete homework tasks regardless of where they live. This is especially true for less well off families in rural areas where access to broadband may be partial or even non-excitant at reasonable costs.

I hope Lib Dem ministers will take up the cause outlined in the Commission’s report and not shelter behind the notion of schools being free to decide their own policies. I would also like to hear from the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches a clear statement that their schools will be expected to provide an education that doesn’t cause hardship to some families and exclude pupils from some important activities. Free should mean free in all respects and not free, but only if you can afford it.

Coalition gets children back to school

This post was based upon the original data released by the DfE. The data has now been reissued in revised form although the DfE say that main trends are unaffected.

Figures from the DfE released today show absence rates in the autumn term continued to fall in 2013 when compared with previous years Overall, the national figure for those pupils missing 22 or more sessions during the autumn term has fallen from 8.3% of pupils in the autumn of 2009 – the last year of the Labour government – to 4.6% of pupils in 2013, the fourth year of the Coalition government’s oversight of education. In secondary schools, the decline has been from 10.3% in 2009 to 5.9% in 2013 or from just over one in ten pupils at risk of becoming a persistent absentee to just over one in twenty.  There are similar levels of improvement in the figures for all pupil absences over the same period.

Illness still remains the main reason for pupil absence, accounting for some 59% of all missed sessions, so the relatively mild start to the winter in2 013 may have helped reduce absence along with more pressure on parents not to take holidays during term-time despite the much cheaper prices available then compared with the peak holiday periods.

One interesting challenge for the coalition is that only 2 of the 26 UTCs and Studio Schools open last autumn had absence rates for that term that were below the national average, and three of the Studio Schools appeared to have had absence rates of over 20%. Surely, cause for a quick call from Ofsted to see what is happening here, and whether they are being used by other schools as a means of exporting pupils at age 14 with poor attendance records that might reflect badly on the schools they have previously been attending. The fact that two of the Studio Schools seem to belong to the same group might also merit attention. It may well be that they are working with particular groups of pupils, although, if so, that isn’t clear from their web site, and the schools are obviously doing good things for some pupils.

However, as nine of the 25 schools with the worst overall absence rates were Studio Schools or UTCs, and one was a Free School, this does suggest there are some questions to be asked. Interestingly, 13 of the schools with the worst absence rates are primary schools and it would be important to see whether they regularly appear in the worst 25 such schools, and if so why?

For the first time data has been produced for both Pupil Referral Units and for four year olds, and both will provide a baseline for comparison in future years.

Sadly, no school had a 100% attendance record for the autumn term, but a free school in the North West and a junior school in Hampshire recorded 99% or better attendance figures for the term.

Below I am repeating the blog I posted last year about studio schools that reveals I was concerned then about attendance rates. Clearly, the issue has not been solved.

Some Studio Schools encounter student attendance challenge

Are the government’s new studio schools getting off to a difficult start? Recent DfE figures for pupil absence during the autumn term of 2012-13 do at the very least raise questions about what is happening.

Five of the ten schools with the highest absence rates, across both primary and secondary sectors, were either studio schools or in one case a University Technical College. As all five of these schools had relatively small enrolments, the behaviour of just one or two reluctant transferees may have unduly affected the outcomes. Nevertheless, against a national rate of 5.2%, or 5.7% for the secondary sector as a whole, absence rates of more than 14% do seem a little on the high side.

Although the majority of the studio schools in the list were in manufacturing centres, with school systems that have faced considerable challenges over the years, it does seem odd that despite the variety of different specialism in these new studio schools so many have these high levels of pupil absence. It might have been though that a fresh start in a new school with a definite vocational slant to the curriculum, and often backed by well known employers, might have inspired pupils to attend regularly. On that basis, it is important to identify what, if anything is going wrong? Indeed, although two studio schools are ranked better than 4,000 in the list of all schools for overall absence rates, the other three schools with studio in their title are in the 600 worst performing school for absence rates.

By focussing on vocational trades, it may be that the early studio schools that a skewed distribution of ability and it will take time to enthuse the pupils about the value of their education after nearly a decade when school has not been the most welcoming of places for many of them. What really must not happen is that these schools become dumping grounds for the failures of the mainstream school system. The new schools coming on stream in 2013 and 2014, including the space studio school in Banbury, need to learn the lessons, not least about transfer to a new school at age 14, that these schools have had to encounter in their early stages of development. It would certainly not be acceptable to either turn a blind eye to high levels of absence in these new types of school or to accept it as a part of the deal for the future of education in England.

As the responsibility for these schools lies with Ministers in Westminster, so officials in the DfE, as would any competent local authority, must ask these schools for the preliminary figures for term two. If these so no improvement over term one of the academic year, action must be taken now. Not to do so will reveal to the education community that while it is acceptable  for central government to castigate local authorities for poor outcomes, government schools are able to produce even worse outcomes with impunity.







Free Schools now account for around 1% of all schools

The DfE has just published updated lists of existing and proposed Free Schools. There are 296 schools in the two lists. Of these, 112, or some 38%, are located within one of the London boroughs. Once the Home Counties regions of the East of England and the South East are added to the London figure the percentage increases to 62% of the national total. By contrast, there are just seven schools in the North East and 12 in the East Midlands. Birmingham, with 13 schools, is the local authority where the largest numbers of schools are located, although Enfield, Hammersmith and Fulham, and Tower Hamlets, three much smaller authorities than Birmingham: each have seven schools located or to be located with their borough.

The majority of the schools, some 232, are mainstream schools, but there are 49 either SEN or alternative provision schools, with 15 schools (sic) listed as 16-19 establishments – 7 of these are in London. Traditional primary (109) and secondary (93) schools dominate the age groupings. However, there are some 43 all-through schools, a number of which are in the special school sector. Personally, I am not yet a fan of such schools in the mainstream sectors where grouping all primary schools that feed a secondary school seems a more enlightened proposition than giving some pupils the opportunity to be part of the school for the whole of their careers while adding others later. Avoiding newcomers being seen as second class citizens seems like a wasteful and unnecessary use of resources. But, no doubt there is some research that shows such schools perform well for all pupils.

Free schools are still contentious with some groups, so it is interesting to see that 7 of the schools are ARK schools, already a large provider of academies in London, and 10 are under the Harris umbrella that has extended north of the river with its free schools, including into Tottenham, the most deprived part of Haringey. There are also three Oasis schools, and a number with E-Act in their name featured in the list.  The DfE don’t provide a faith analysis of the schools, but a number are clearly linked to faith groups of both the Christian denominations and other faiths.

This DfE report also doesn’t say anything about the size of the schools, both on opening and in terms of their future maximum numbers. There is no doubt the primary schools will help, especially in and around London, in providing places to cope with the boom in pupil numbers. The presence of some secondary schools in areas of falling rolls or adequate provisions seems rather more wasteful of scare resources. Once the Studio Schools and UTCs are added to this list, the shape of schooling will have changed more between 2010 and 2015 than at any time for a generation. Now might finally be the time to question the continued presence of selective secondary schools? How diverse a school system do we actually want and need? And is diversity and choice being put before the provision of a good school for all pupils?


Since I wrote this piece last night Channel 4 News have carried a report of another school that has failed its Ofsted inspection. Unlike other free schools that have failed, where the promoters were new to education or offering a type of education not previously recognised within the state funded system, this is a school run by a group with extensive mainstream school experience, albeit overseas. Perhaps, this goes to show that running schools in England isn’t as easy as some might have thought and that some local authorities of all political persuasions should have been given more credit for their work.